Contemporary Activism: a digital world

Readers from the UK and further afield will have either been immediately impacted by, or exposed to, images in the media of neon-clad, placard wielding junior doctors at gateway picket lines to healthcare outlets earlier this month. So too, London regularly plays host to crowds of similar professional and public actors, performing an activity through collective movement and visibility such as last year’s Solidarity with Refugees march.

'Refugees Welcome' at London Rally on 12 September 2015. Image credit: R4vi, Flickr

‘Refugees Welcome’ at London Rally on 12 September 2015. Image credit: R4vi, Flickr.

Protests, engagement with strike movements, demonstrations, ‘sit-ins’ – what are they really about, and what role do they play in shaping legislation and lobbying policymakers in global health? At the most basic level, these are instances of socially enacted politics, with the focus of such activity being a desire to reach a point of debate, challenge or to highlight a cause.

These methods are the original form of activism, first linked with politics in the early 20th century and defined by Sarifa Moola (2004) as the ‘involvement in action to bring about change, be it social, political, environmental or other change. This action is in support of or in opposition to one side of a controversial argument’. The patterns of a rally’s trajectory of mustering, movement and end-point is symbolic of all these forms of action that seek to make change through self-determination and a bottom-up approach.

West Suffolk Junior Doctors Strike. Image Credit: sasastro, Flickr

West Suffolk Junior Doctors Strike. Image Credit: sasastro, Flickr

Indeed, there is comprehensive debate surrounding the impact of such social protests to actualise sustainable change once the social mass and media attention has dissipated. Certainly, the personal sense of social responsibility is often overlooked in the motivations of such activism; in the instance of street protests, participation is heavily influenced by a desire to exercise solidarity as much as to instigate concrete policy change.

In the field of global health, social activism such as collective rallies and awareness events  in countries across the world on World AIDS Day, for instance, are challenging to co-ordinate and are, arguably, devaluing their integral benefit of visually raising the profile of a health issue, cause, or injustice because of their frequency and questionable prospective impact. Hardly a day goes by without a street protest in at least on capital city. Indeed, contemporary activism is witnessing a shift in actors and changing movements.

BT Tower Turns Red For World Aids Day. Image Credit: Jon Curnow, Flickr.

BT Tower Turns Red For World Aids Day. Image Credit: Jon Curnow, Flickr.

In the increasingly globalised, Big Data age, innovative use of social media is becoming increasingly applicable, and effective, in establishing and constructing awareness and advocating for change. Notwithstanding that electronic information dissemination and the passivity of signing an online petition, for instance, can be both unreliable or equivalently ineffectual, there are areas of digital communication that represent powerful and valuable reformative channels.

Digital communication spaces which invite e-participation are clearly identified and outlined in Palgrave Macmillan’s publication ‘Emerging Digital Spaces in Contemporary Society Properties of Technology’ which highlights that these arenas are not just novel gimmicks. Take, for instance, the activism surrounding the youth summit of the organisation ‘Restless Development’ in 2015. At this event, hundreds of International Citizen Service volunteers convened at the Department for International Development at Whitehall, London, which became a hub for interactive digital workshops, Twitter hangouts (collective use of a pre-defined ‘handle’, so augmenting the possibility of trending) and live link-ups and other engagements with the opportunities presented in cyberspace.

Image credit: Palgrave Macmillan

Image credit: Palgrave Macmillan

Pertaining in particular to Twitter, Paolo Gerbudo’s ‘Tweets and the Streets‘ work offers a wide-ranging analysis of the role of this particular social media channel in contemporary activism, reviewed as offering ‘an exciting and invigorating journey through the new politics of dissent, […pointing] both to the creative possibilities and to the risks of political evanescence which new media brings to the contemporary protest experience‘.

This doctrine of direct action can be translated not only to promoting change but also encouraging involvement and snowballing of activity, as seen with the story of Lara Casalotti, a 24-year-old with mixed Thai-Italian heritage who’s shock diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia saw her turn to digital communications to seek bone marrow donors for her very narrow pool, which has grown into a worldwide appeal.

For Lara, social media’s unparalleled speed of engagement of peoples, minds and resources represents a very personal and surely sustainable approach to promoting awareness and change that can be more valuable than face-to-face contact and street movements in the race to make change in an increasingly time-poor global society.

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Image Credit: Takver, Flickr

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